The Met risked messing up its great European galleries. It paid off.

The Met risked messing up its great European galleries. It paid off.

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NEW YORK — I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time 40 years ago, during my freshman year in college. I went with two friends, and before arriving we strategized how to make the best of the few hours we had there.

Someone made an unorthodox proposal, which we unanimously accepted: We would each follow our random path through the galleries, soaking up as much of the art as we could, and then report back for a mutual debriefing at a cafe, after the guards evicted us.

I was a newbie to the monumental museum on Fifth Avenue, and I let the architecture determine my first move in this game. I raced straight up the majestic central staircase into the European galleries, where I was arrested by the giant paintings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, which hang there still. It never occurred to me how strange it is that the Met begins its European galleries with these comically overblown, fanciful and hyperbolic images until I revisited the Met late last year, shortly after the museum reopened these rooms following a major renovation and reinstallation.

End of carousel

The European rooms were closed for eight months in March 2023 as the Met finished a $150 million renovation that replaced some 30,000 square feet of skylights above the galleries. That gave curators the chance to rethink and refresh these rooms, including the works on view, how they are organized and the larger intellectual context in which they are framed. Now dubbed “Look Again: European Paintings 1300-1800,” these 45 rooms devoted to art from the early Renaissance to the 19th century include not just paintings but also maps, sculpture, ceramics and musical instruments. And the definition of “Europe” is left intentionally open-ended, to include work made in the Spanish colonies of the New World and beyond.

Some of the oldest works that aren’t strictly European, or paintings, are discovered in the first gallery, helping to bring down to earth Tiepolo’s operatic “Triumph of Marius,” “The Capture of Carthage” and “The Battle of Vercellae.” These include a Bodhisattva bust from what is now Pakistan, made in the 4th or 5th century; a carved limestone lion from Egypt, made a bit earlier; and a lacquered bowl depicting Aeneas, mythical founder of ancient Rome, made in Mexico in the 18th century. Tiepolo’s paintings celebrated the military power of ancient Rome as its republic both expanded and frayed internally. The bust and the lion both reference North Africa, provinces that became essential to Roman wealth and power, while the Mexican bowl suggests the enduring allure of Roman mythology well beyond geographical and chronological limits of control or sovereignty.

And so, the stage for the new presentation of European art is laid. Europe is defined not just by geography but also by military force and ideology. Maps of Europe on view nearby suggest not so much a physical entity as varying ideas, over time, of what Europe should be or could be, including one designed in the 12th century by an Arab cartographer in which Mecca is a central focus point. European painting is part of an ongoing project to define Europe, which includes trade and colonialism, military expansion, intellectual foment, and a great deal of cultural porosity.

This might get tiresome — a heavy-handed dose of reflexive self-loathing — except the curators don’t follow through on the idea. It is, rather, a sensible provocation at the beginning of what is a relatively benign nod to contemporary curatorial fashions, intermittently on display through the next 44 galleries.

And if you’re going to begin the story of European art with Tiepolo, you can’t just let him hold forth, prolix and pompous, without a bit of pushback. It doesn’t really make any sense to let an 18th-century artist sound the opening trumpet call of this five-century odyssey, and it’s always been a bit jarring to turn immediately from his swirls of fabric and glinting armor straight into the gold-ground paintings made at the dawn of the Renaissance. Given the Met’s astonishing collection of work by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Durer, Tintoretto, Titian and El Greco, why begin with paintings that few honest critics would number among the greatest in the collection?

Because they fit the dimensions of the room, because they are beloved, because they’ve been there a long time and because they stop you in your tracks, just as they stopped me 40 years ago. Europe is a show, staged for itself and for the world at large, and this show begins with a grand display of artifice, like Leo the Lion roaring before the start of every MGM film. (“Ars gratia artis,” indeed.)

After this initial gallery, things become more conventional. A few 20th-century and contemporary works are interspersed here and there, to underscore continuities between past and present, and sometimes to call attention to moments of confusion, rupture and discontinuity in the timeline. A Max Beckmann triptych finished in 1949, “The Beginning,” sits near the magnificent 16th-century Cellier Altarpiece by Jean Bellegambe, perhaps to suggest the myriad ways later artists refreshed their own vision through forays into the past, or simply to highlight the formal similarities, including the density of vertical figures in a tightly confined space.

A Francis Bacon has also been interpolated into these early galleries, but after that, the juxtaposition of new and old is mostly forgotten until a gallery of El Grecos, where Picasso and Cézanne are included. This seems to be a pattern: a brief feint toward newish curatorial strategies — including thematic rooms and mixing of media — followed by a long, reflexive return to the chronological and geographical categories that have governed the study of Western art.

And that’s okay. No one expects the Met to lead on these sorts of things, and given the serious work the Met has to do — as this country’s preeminent art museum, as a scholarly and educational institution, as a civic edifice with a loyal and even fanatical audience and as a tourist hot spot — a nod to current museum fads is more than sufficient.

By the end of a two-hour visit — which is not nearly enough time — I was struck by how these galleries are not just a repository of art but also increasingly a repository of museum strategies, never fully deployed but on view just so you know the Met knows they exist.

Visitors who are interested in when and how the curators have broken with the old and expected forms of presentation can look for a few clues. Among them are the accession dates listed on the wall. If a work was acquired sometime in the past decade or so, or if it’s a loan, then there’s a good chance that it represents some effort to rethink the Met’s collection and agenda, including acquiring works by women. Don’t miss Sofonisba Anguissola’s compelling portrait of a noblewoman, made in the mid-16th century, in a gallery devoted to portraiture that foregrounds power (which also includes great works by Holbein, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Bronzino).

Rooms devoted to thematic rather than national or period groupings are also good indicators that the curators are trying to finesse deeper problems of display. Filippino Lippi’s exquisite “Madonna and Child” from the 1480s is included in a room called “The Home in Renaissance Italy.” In the background, fishing from a bridge, is a Black man, and a Black woman can be seen doing domestic work. Even before the European colonization of the Americas, the slave trade through Portugal was changing the patterns of European wealth and domesticity. In the same room, wall text cites a 16th-century treatise for brides, suggesting that people then, as now, often defined themselves through the things they owned and put on display: “Guide them around the house and in particular show them some of your possessions … something that you will do as if showing them your heart.”

A room devoted to work made in the Americas from 1550 to 1820 is the most surprising innovation. The sudden appearance of images stylistically far removed from what you’ve just seen nearby — polished theatrical visions by Murillo and Zurbarán and deeply intimate portraits by Velázquez — is jarring and delightful. And after the juxtaposition of El Greco with Picasso and Cézanne a few rooms back, the brilliantly colorful, playful, naive and enormously appealing work of artists from Cuzco, Peru; Quito, Ecuador; and Mexico City feels like just another historical hiccup. Are we turning back to a vision that predates the Renaissance or forward to a moment like the one Roger Fry celebrated in 1920 in a wall text in the El Greco gallery: “Here is an old master who is not merely modern, but actually appears a good many steps ahead of us, turning back to show us the way.”

If you proceed according to the official route, beginning with gallery 600 and ending with gallery 644, the later rooms become increasingly contrived but not necessarily less interesting. A room devoted to “The Artist’s Studio” includes a circa 1665 self-portrait of Gerrit Dou, seen in a darkened alcove with his palette and brushes, vines and flowers, leafing his way through a book as if just nailing down some anatomical or ornithological fact in an encyclopedia. Nearby is an engaging 2014 work by Kerry James Marshall that shows a studio full of Black artists, models and perhaps visitors, a vibrant social and creative space taking up new subjects and themes unimaginable to Dou in his scholarly isolation.

There’s no one way to walk through these galleries, as I discovered almost four decades ago. I remember only a few works from that first visit. The big Tiepolos, of course, and other cinematically scaled paintings including Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates” and the Titian (and workshop) “Venus and the Lute Player,” which remains a favorite. I do remember feeling that I had not nearly enough time to make sense of it all, and I feel exactly the same way today, though it’s not the guards chasing me out that I worry about. A lifetime is insufficient, no matter how often you visit.

Look Again: European Paintings 1300-1800 is on permanent display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. metmuseum.org.

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